Where are all the young people going?

Why do the visitors never seem to stick?

Why have there been so many fights in our church?

Why are there so many rules in the church that do not seem to come from Scripture?

Unfortunately, these are common questions in the church. In my years as a pastor, I have been shocked over how much antipathy there has been toward the visible church. It took me more than a few years to get a handle on why the reaction has been so strong.  The sad reality is that many people have witnessed fighting, church splits, abuses, hatred, contentions, jealousies, all undergirded by a hard kind of legalism within the confines of a closed community that demonstrates little of the joy of Christ.  What are we to think of these things? Are there legitimate criticisms of Reformed theology, piety, and practice that we should evaluate?

Two Kinds Of Ministries

The Bible contrasts two very different kinds of ministries.  In 2 Corinthians 3:6 the apostle Paul says that we are ministers of the New Covenant, of the Spirit and not of the letter.  The contrast the apostle is making is between the New Covenant as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, which he calls the “ministry of righteousness,” and the particular phenomenon of the giving of the law on Sinai to Moses—which he designates as the “ministry of condemnation.”  The contrast between them is important because each kind of ministry produces its own kind of fruit in its recipients.

Jesus’ conflict with the Sanhedrin clearly exposes the nature of the ministry of condemnation. This community was under the ministry of condemnation and the bad tree was bearing bad fruit.  The Pharisees had created a legalistic, self-righteous, exclusive club for those who conformed to their man-made, superimposed interpretations of the law and the “tradition of the elders” (Matt 15:2).  No one could enter the club until there was complete conformity and uniformity. 

Grumpy Manipulators

One of the marks of the “ministry of condemnation” is manipulation. Full of self-righteousness and pride, the Sanhedrin condemned everyone but themselves. The Pharisees would go so far as to condemn Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands properly before eating bread (Matt. 15:1ff). This ministry was practically killing the people. The Sanhedrin did nothing but fight over the most minute points of the law and their shepherding of the people proved to be nothing but a heavy-handed yoke of manipulation.

Paradoxically, they were not really ministers, i.e., servants of the law (which is God’s Word) but rather they used the law to empower themselves and to gain personal control over the flock. By contrast, Jesus used the law the way it is intended to be used: 1) to show sinners their need for a Savior; 2) to restrain evil in society; 3) as the rule for those whom God has graciously saved. The Sanhedrin used the law in none of these ways but rather like a weapon of personal control.

Another fruit of their ministry of condemnation is plain old grumpiness. The Sanhedrin was not marked by joy, confidence, hope, or freedom. Rather, the spiritual life of the scribes and Pharisees was marked by sorrow, guilt, fighting and division. These are the tragic consequences of a ministry that kills. How different this all was from the ministry of Christ whose goal was to loose people from bondage and secure a joy that was complete.

Jesus illustrated the difference between the true ministry of the Word and what Paul calls “the ministry of condemnation:”

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast (Mark 2:18–19; ESV)

Jesus is the bridegroom. He brought salvation and joy to those whom he delivered from bondage, sin, and death. Those whom he healed could not contain their astonishment and joy (Mark 7:31–37).

Recognizing The Ministry Of Condemnation

Sometimes this has been a serious problem in churches. Many of the divisions are driven by a pastor or authority who has steadily and consistently delivered the ministry of condemnation to the people.  This kind of ministry is concerned only to bring people into conformity to his additions to the law of God and to put people under a heavy yoke. In such a ministry, the grace of God revealed in Christ “who is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4) has been forgotten or is neglected.

When a pastor is unable to make this basic distinction, the condemning or killing power of the law is used to motivate new obedience (see Rom 7:6–13). Under this sort of grumpy ministry, the law for the Christian no longer becomes a standard for grateful living but becomes again a standard of obtaining one’s own righteousness before God—the very error of the Galatian church. When the law is abused this way these authority figures in the church—I hesitate to call them “shepherds”—turn into a covenant of works what is supposed to be a covenant of grace.

This has the sad consequence of putting the congregation under the heavy yoke of law for their own salvation. The such a use fails to create a sense of awe and wonder over the person and work of Christ who has fulfilled the law for his people.  In such a case, the pastor has forgotten the primary goal of gospel ministry: to lead people to Jesus. He has robbed the people of their joy in Christ. Consider Calvin’s summary of gospel ministry:

Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favour by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace.

Calvin here notes that the principal object of all ministry is to lead people to confess sin and receive the free grace of forgiveness offered in the gospel.  All pagan religions, whether we think of paganism traditionally defined or perhaps of what some have called “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” (where Christianity is becomes about feeling good and being good) focus merely on correcting the behavior of individuals.

In light of the distinction between a ministry of condemnation and a ministry of righteousness, some basic questions need to be addressed: When the pastor is treating the sanctification of Christians with God’s law (the third use of the law), is he using the killing power of the law in anger to correct a perceived lack of spirituality, or is he is speaking to them as believers under the grace of God? Conversely, when the pastor is crushing the people with the killing power of the law (the first use of the law), is his goal to lead the people to Christ to receive forgiveness and grace? What are the fruits that follow such a ministry in the life of the congregation, joy or guilt?

Six Fruits Of A Ministry of Condemnation

Six kinds of bad fruits follow from the ministry of condemnation:

  1. Cult like Behavior is Fostered: As particular interpretations of the law are pounded into the people, a guilty hold is fostered over the people, who are brainwashed that if they depart from the tradition of the elders on any point, they are departing from the only true church and endangering their souls before God.  In such environments, the church becomes its own kind of club. To really belong, one has to adopt the fine interpretations of the law as the hard-lined pastor has forced them.
  2. A Martyr Complex Is Promoted: When the ministry is exposed for what it is, a ministry of condemnation coercing people with the fine points of the law for conformity, such groups love to retreat into a kind of martyr complex as the last ones standing on the truth, or the last “seven-thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal”.
  3. The Law Itself Becomes a Rule of Self-Promotion and Pride: As the pastor swings hard with the law to the condemnation of everyone else, the churchgoer actually develops a confidence in his own conviction and good record of keeping the particular commandment being addressed. This produces a kind of self confidence in the particular nuances of the tradition itself.
  4. Church Splits and Divisions Are Common: When the heavy hand of the law is used to justify one’s own position to the condemnation of everyone else, this tends to arouse the works of the flesh in the people. The apostle makes this case in Romans 7:8 that the law, when used to promote self-righteousness, actually has the effect of arousing all manner of sinful desire. As the works of the flesh are aroused in this way, the ministry is actually moving the people to the inevitable consequence of division since mutual love and unity is only promoted by those who have been deeply touched by the love of Christ in the gospel.
  5. Joy in Christ is Absent: True joy is a fruit of those who have been set free by the truth of the gospel. The ministry of condemnation in contrast produces a host of malcontents.
  6. A Group of Church Goers Remain Unregenerate: When the ministry of righteousness is absent, people are not brought into contact with a message that can truly give life people remain unregenerate, i.e., they still need to be born again. This was the case with Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, a scholar of the law but who needed to be born again by the gracious, free, sovereign work of the Spirit of God (See John 3).

These problems have sometimes become so bad that people think that they can do nothing but walk away from the church altogether or, in the Reformed context, they jump to the opposite extreme rejecting as “legalism” anything that they associate with being Reformed: discipline, commitment, doctrine, catechism, structure, evening worship. They react by turning to emotionalism and broad evangelicalism in search of a kind of religious euphoria. Young people who are raised under a ministry of condemnation are tempted to leave the church for the same reasons.

All evangelical churches and Reformed churches in particular would do well to consider whether their ministry to God’s people has promoted the fruit of the Spirit (Eph 5:22–26) or the works of the flesh.  If the latter is what people experience, it’s no wonder there has been such a reaction against Reformed churches.  We have a rich heritage in the Reformed tradition of the doctrines of grace. “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel,” said the apostle.  Woe to the Reformed churches if they bury the very gospel of grace and freedom they once uncovered in the Reformation.

The good news, however, is that the Spirit is pleased to use the preaching of the Good News—that Jesus obeyed in our place, that he died in our place, that he has been raised from the dead for our justification, that he has ascended, that he is ruling all things now, that he has poured out his Holy Spirit on his church, that, by the Holy Spirit, he is sovereignly bringing all of his people to new life, true faith, and with all that to “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” As Paul says, against these things there is no law.

—Chris Gordon